Perfect job history is like a unicorn, it doesn’t exist. Why not? Because life is nothing like a fairy tale and every single person that is being interviewed had to struggle with some obstacles or had to deal with some difficulties that interviewers can’t even imagine.

The most common and often the hardest questions during the recruitment process are about gaps between jobs or about short employment periods.

As recruiters, when we see a resume with a lot of gaps between employment periods, we automatically think:

  1. He/She can be lazy; the candidate has worked for a while and then took some time off until the money ran out.
  2. He/She was fired repeatedly and has had trouble finding a job.

But there’s this third option than can be told only by a candidate, and a responsible recruiter will always want to hear that story. How to tell it without being perceived as oversharing? Or, worse, being perceived as someone who is looking for an excuse?

Recruiters and hiring managers are people too. They do understand that life can be far from perfect and some have had it tougher than others. That’s why it’s so important to be able to explain calmly and honestly why you have these gaps in your resume or why you left your last job after just 3 months. Keep in mind a few simple rules when talking about your hardships.

  • When there’s one instance of a gap between jobs, it’s totally acceptable to say: “It was a family matter that forced me to take a leave of absence,” or “I had health emergency that I had to deal with.” No responsible recruiter will push for more.
  • If you or your family member had a long-term sickness that pushed you out of the workforce repeatedly, you might be better off giving more specific explanation, such as: “I had to take care of my sibling due to recurring health problems.”
  • Don’t apologize or start over-explaining your motivations; it’s totally acceptable that you prioritized private matters over work during critical times.
  • If it’s still hard for you to talk about it, rehearse and chose words that you feel comfortable with. Try a few sentences and then decide on one. It will help you with keeping your emotions in check when talking about it. If your voice will tremble or if some tears appear, it’s nothing to worry about, we’re all humans, just take a deep breath and say: “Sorry, it’s still very difficult for me to talk about.”
  • Don’t worry if there will be a moment of silence after your explanation, not everyone knows how to react and sometimes people are showing respect by letting a sentence breathe before moving on to the next question.

Remember: be straightforward, keep it short, and don’t feel guilty.

Those are the extreme examples; sometimes explanations are more mundane, such as maternity/paternity leave, going back to school, or traveling. If that’s the case, just say it honestly without apologizing or over-explaining. You can add at the end that now you’re looking for a long-term commitment (unless you’re not, then be open about what your expectations are).

But what if you need to talk about being let go?

Well, that’s a tough one indeed. The bottom line is you should always be truthful about what happened. Some examples:

  • Downsizing – there’s no fault of yours in being let go because of the reorganization in the company. Say it openly but without bitterness: “The company decided to make some changes by reducing the workforce.” Don’t add any sarcastic remarks or judgemental sentences like “they wanted to hire cheaper employees,” “they took my client portfolio and threw me out.” When you’re being interviewed, the hiring manager will identify with your former employer, not with you. So badmouthing or judging your ex-employer will make her doubt your professionalism.
  • Being fired – if you made a mistake, you should be straightforward about it; tell the story honestly and let interviewer know what you learned from it. For example, if you didn’t follow procedure and that was your offense, say that now you know you need to be more meticulous. If you lost something, own your mistake, admit it, and say it’s something you’d never do again. I can’t guarantee that it’ll be enough for potential employer, but I know that everyone makes mistakes, and the true failure is when you deny responsibility and keep repeating it.

And what if the recruiter or hiring manager asks you about your reasons for leaving your last employer? That one can be tough, but just be truthful about it. Don’t over dramatize the story, and don’t get into every detail. The most common examples are:

  • Low salary and no growth potential – both are very solid and understandable reasons.
  • Atmosphere, change of management, or a hostile environment – these are tricky but if that was the only time you left an employer and if you have a solid job history (you’re not a job hopper) you should be fine with this explanation. Remember, keep it short and about you, the ex-employee. Some great examples: “I felt that atmosphere wasn’t really in line with what I’m used to,” “I didn’t like how I was treated/employees were treated,” or simply, “it wasn’t good fit for me.”
  • Conflict with management or with other employees­ – you really shouldn’t bring this up. Instead, make it about yourself and don’t badmouth anyone: “I was not feeling comfortable working there and I needed a change.”

What if the recruiter asks, “What is your biggest fault?” Many candidates can be tripped by this question, but this one is not really so tough if you see its full potential. Some techniques to make this question work out for the best:

  • You can show you are self-conscious. Explain how you can be prompted to change and eager to better yourself.
  • You can show the upside of your imperfection. It’s all a matter of phrasing: “I’m too maternal (I’m always caring too much about other people’s business),” “I’m very focused on each individual task (I’m not really into multitasking),”  “I’m borderline compulsively tidy (I’ll scream and cry if you take my stapler from my desk).”
  • You can show your funny side and make a joke about yourself. Having a good personality will always work in your favor!

As you can see, you don’t need to be afraid of tough questions if you’re a solid, professional, and motivated candidate. Just be truthful, be kind when speaking of former employers and colleagues, keep it short and comprehensive, and don’t apologize if you did nothing wrong. Don’t be intimidated! Remember, recruiters and hiring managers are people too.

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